Dag Hessen: Communicating Science Through Children’s Literature

Image Credit: Dag Hessen, University of Oslo

The past couple of years has seen younger generations become increasingly active with regards to environmental change. Recent protests worldwide, spearheaded by people like Greta Thunberg, have been incredibly encouraging to watch. So it’s important that scientists continue to improve our ability to communicate science to children.

On that note, I spoke to Dag Hessen, Norwegian ecologist and writer, who has published several science books, also successful children’s books. We spoke about the importance of explaining ecological concepts to children, the process of writing a book, and dealing with a different form of writing.

Sam Perrin (SP): You’ve got quite a prolific bibliography. But how did your writing career start?

Professor Dag Hessen, Aquatic Biology and Toxicology, University of Oslo (DH): My very first book came after I’d written a newspaper article about Darwin and evolution. I was approached by a publisher that asked me if I could turn this topic into a book. I had always enjoyed writing, I think that’s a crucial point. So it’s never been heavy duty, but something that’s been inspiring.

It’s good for the mind as well. I think writing and reading popular science books can really start us thinking about new ways of seeing biology, seeing science. Richard Dawkins is always my best example. He says that science is the poetry of reality. He started with the selfish gene, which really promoted a number of scientific ideas that people have since explored. He also enjoys writing, and you need to do that.

So when I’d finished that first book, I realised that it was fun and something that could be combined with a scientific career. Since then about half of my books have been on invitation from publishers. Many of the requests were not necessarily on a specific topic, just a general inquiry to see if I had something I’d like to write up. The other half are on topics that I really wanted to talk about.

SP: How long does the process of writing a book take?

DH: I write pretty fast, probably too fast. When I’m writing a book, I always say that next time I’ll be a proper author, set aside some months to think deep thoughts and really read through all the literature. Do whatever a “proper writer” should do. But it has never been the case, it has always been half an hour now and then. Very sub-optimal, but that’s what the hectic every-day life of a researcher is like.

I’m now writing a book, tentatively titled What is Life, and I’m just doing ten minutes now and then. But what helps me is that when I start writing I can cut off everything and just focus on it. And then the ideas come popping in along as I write. So even if I have to stop because I have a meeting approaching, I write down the keywords so the ideas can be picked up next time.

“One of the reasons [teaching evolution to kids is] so important is that they meet evolution eventually at higher school levels, but they get the biblical creation story very early at school and that is never opposed or questioned.”

SP: Writing for kids must have been a new concept. What was the inspiration behind such a change of target audience?

DH: I really wanted to explain evolution for kids, because I read some children’s textbooks, and realised that they meet evolution late in the curricula. So there was obviously a demand for explaining evolution early on. And it’s of course very hard to explain evolution. How can a monkey turn into a human? Isn’t that impossible? That sort of creationist argument.

So I wrote this as a fiction, a book for young people, simply called “Life”. I got in contact with an illustrator, which is important. It’s still one of the books I’ve been most pleased with. There’s a guy who is 15 or 16, and he has his exam in evolutionary biology and he realises that he knows nothing, just a few days before the exam. He’s been visiting relatives up north and then he takes a train from Bodø down to Oslo. I turned this train ride into a short evolutionary history of the Earth. The train moves with the speed of light, taking about 4 billion years from Bodø to Oslo, and he starts reading his book about evolution, and he falls asleep. An old man comes on board, who is of course Charles Darwin, but he doesn’t realise this.

So it’s kind of a dream or fiction, and then the train stops every now and then when there are big events in the evolution of life. They disembark and the old man explains to him what’s going on. And it’s all done with a sense of humour, and the illustrations are great.

Dag Hessen with the 2010 Akademikerprisen, a Norwegian award for academics who have made significant contributions to academic freedom and dissemination of knowledge

Dag Hessen with the 2010 Akademikerprisen, a Norwegian award for academics who have made significant contributions to academic freedom and dissemination of knowledge (Image Credit: Akademikerne, CC BY-SA 2.0)

They see dinosaurs of course. You need to dwell a bit with the type of creatures that are interesting to young people. I don’t spend much time on phytoplankton and bacteria, but a bit more time on the charismatics. The train moves into the station of Oslo, they stop just outside the station and meet some Neanderthals, then in the end he does brilliantly on the exam.

And then I wrote a book for really young children, which is much more difficult, because you cannot use irony, you cannot use the same sense of humour, you need to explain things very carefully so they understand the concepts. And it’s pretty hard to explain evolution to small children. So I used a story which is based on my own daughter. It’s called “Where Do I Come From?”. There’s a curious kid, who at bedtime starts starts asking her father where she comes from. And he says, from your mother and father. But then she asks “yes, but before that?”. And before that? And then he ends up trying to tell the whole origin of life backwards, with some metaphors and illustrations. I also wrote “Life from A til Å”. I explain basic concepts in life by going through the alphabet, also with a touch of humour.

SP: Why is it so important to introduce these concepts to kids early on?

DH: One of the reasons it’s so important is that they meet evolution eventually at higher school levels, but they get the biblical creation story very early at school and that is never opposed or questioned. And it’s ok to keep it as a story, but a lot of kids believe that this is how it actually happened. And then later when they meet evolution, it can cause conflicts.

And I think there’s a bit of beauty in life, and that it’s important not only to technically understand how evolution has happened, but to bring these links between other animals and ourselves closer. It should bring about a deeper respect for life in general. That’s probably the most important part of it.

“There needs to be a balance between facts and wonder. We need to show students everything we don’t know, and inspire them to learn something and think critically.”

SP: What’s the publishing process like?

DH: Of course the language is completely different. In these cases I don’t need to have lots of literature references. It’s kind of a relief to get rid of all these, because when you write a book about Carbon Cycling, a more scientific type of book, then you always need to have the right references, and that’s a hassle sometimes.

But I always write down some basic ideas, what’s the purpose of the book, what story do I want to tell? And if I have not previously been contacted by the publisher, then I do contact them. And then after that initial contact, we go back and forth a bit. But often I have kind of an open agreement, so that if I have an idea they are willing to discuss it. I’ve never experienced a straight out decline. So I’m in a very fortunate situation, because the bottleneck is getting to the publisher. Lots of people would like to write books but these days publishers are more and more reluctant to publish works by writers they don’t know.

SP: It must be difficult to communicate the uncertainty of science to a younger audience.

DH: It’s a very good question and very important point. Actually I think that a failure of ours in communicating or teaching science to students is that we just asked them to learn the facts. I think the nice thing with natural sciences is of course that it’s fact-based to a large extent. You can simply say, “this is how it is”. And a side-effect of this is that we don’t communicate uncertainty to students in a thought-provoking way. I mean there are open ends and questions and lots of things we really don’t know to the finest details.

So on top of the facts and the things we know, we should really be open about what we don’t know, about the uncertainties. I often use climate change when I talk to adults about how to communicate uncertainty. There’s not much scientific debate about the fact that we are experiencing warming due to man-made CO2 emissions, and the source of this has been known for decades. But how this will affect ecosystems, all these feedback processes, we really don’t know. We have no idea if we’ll stop at 500ppm or if it could reach 1000ppm. So within this boundary of certainty there is a whole range of uncertainty.

It’s so important to stimulate curiosity and we do not do that by just peppering the students with facts, facts, facts all the time. There needs to be a balance between facts and wonder. We need to show students everything we don’t know, and inspire them to learn something and think critically.

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